In the end, the images of President Joe Biden’s inauguration may have been just as important as the words he and others shared during Wednesday’s ceremony at the U.S. Capitol’s West Front.
After two weeks of video clips of a violent insurrection at the same location, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Where rioters had battled police and invaded the Capitol in an unsuccessful attempt to upend Biden’s election, pictures of pomp, ceremony, dignity and especially peace showed the transfer of power and that America’s democratic process had prevailed.
Familiar Inauguration Day images, usually taken for granted, carried a new resonance in the aftermath of democracy’s close call at the Capitol. The seat of U.S. government, draped in American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting, and majestic views of the National Mall and iconic national symbols provided a sense of continuity and comfort in tumultuous times.
The ceremony featured a historic first – the inauguration of the first woman, Kamala Harris, as vice president – and an unusual element, the absence of outgoing President Donald Trump. And a new star was born, as Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet, “stole the show,” as more than one correspondent noted. Masks were mandatory on the Capitol dais, a symbol of Biden’s firmer approach to COVID-19.
Most striking, however, was the absence of hundreds of thousands of people on the Mall, a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic and security concerns after the Capitol riot. On TV, the ceremony did not suffer substantially for lack of a crowd. What it lacked in civic participation, it gained in symbolic splendor, with a sea of flags billowing beautifully in the brisk wind.
TV anchors noted the contrasting images of the Capitol, a comparison Biden later made in his inauguration speech.
“Hard to believe it was just two weeks ago that the Capitol was under siege. Those steps were overrun by rioters, by domestic terrorists,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos said as Biden, Harris and their spouses arrived at the building’s steps. “That was two Wednesdays ago. Last Wednesday, the outgoing president was impeached. Now, the inauguration of the incoming president.”
Biden’s speech, which emphasized unity, was well-received by news anchors and commentators.
“The line that stood out to me was when he said, ‘There is truth and there are lies.’ It is such a simple line. It is a platitude in any other context,” ABC News’ Jonathan Karl said. But “we have divided camps that do not accept the same definitions of what is true and what is a lie. The people that stormed the Capitol stormed (it) in the name of a lie, a lie that was perpetrated and pushed at every point by Biden’s predecessor. When (Biden) said that line (about truth and lies), if he can convince Americans of that once again, he’ll go a long way toward accomplishing what he needs to accomplish.”
Added Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief Washington correspondent : “The ceremony and speech were really important and optimistic. Right at the beginning, the new president spoke of the insurrection, spoke of the riot. He talked about democracy being tested, America has been tested. And we have prevailed. He confronted that reality, he was not hiding from it.”
“Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace raved about Biden’s remarks: “I thought it was a great speech. I’ve been listening to these inaugural addresses since 1961, John F. Kennedy, (and) I thought this was the best inaugural address I ever heard.”
Right-wing Newsmax, which talked over much of the ceremony as commentators criticized Biden and the Democrats, stood out in its churlishness, with commentator Tom Basile calling Biden’s speech “dark” and “divisive.”
Some anchors smartly let the pictures do the talking, while others fell victim to the TV’s discomfort with silence. As Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, descended the steps to the podium at the start of the ceremony, CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell said: “Let’s take this in for a moment.” On Fox, Martha MacCallum, providing analysis, stepped on the opening line of Garth Brooks’ beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
In a ceremony that featured performances of patriotic songs by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Brooks, the most praised performance came from 22-year-old poet Gorman.
“Amanda Gorman just summed up with emotion and beautiful eloquence the idea of what the country came close to losing a couple of weeks ago,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said. The poem “was delivered with tremendous poise and grace. It was incredibly relevant and timely.”
Not surprisingly, CBS’ Gayle King had a story detailing her friend Oprah Winfrey’s connection to Gorman.
The image of Harris as the first woman, the first Black person and the first person of Asian descent to become vice president spoke louder than words. Fox News’ Bret Baier noted how commentator Juan Williams “choked up a little bit” when she took the oath of office from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who mispronounced her first name.
“It’s visceral,” Williams said. “You think about the status of Black women in this country for most of our history and the idea that a Black woman would assume such power in this moment as a national leader (is) truly inspiring.”
The absence of Trump, who gave a brief speechabout his accomplishments as a one-term president at a smaller ceremony before flying to Florida from Joint Base Andrews, changed the traditional presidential handoff.
As former Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, said goodbye to his successor, and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, after the ceremony, O’Donnell underlined the unusual nature of the images.
“We don’t usually see something like this,” she said. “We usually see Marine One, the giant helicopter, waiting to whisk the former president away.”
Traditionally, the departing president attends his successor’s inauguration, but Trump’s refusal to do so created dual media events, as the president’s departure from Joint Base Andrews briefly overlapped with Biden’s motorcade.
With a small crowd chanting “We love you!” on the tarmac, Trump gave a short speech thanking friends and family, touting his accomplishments and, a day after Biden’s emotional remembrance of the COVID death toll, paying rare tribute to those who have suffered from what he again called the “China virus.” Without naming Biden, he wished the new administration “great luck and great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular.”
He closed with a promise, “We will be back in some form,” before leaving to strains of “YMCA,” the Village People anthem that became a signature at his rallies.
As Trump departed, Steve Doocy of “Fox and Friends” noted that millions didn’t want Biden as president. “What about those people who voted for (Trump)? This is not the guy they wanted, but nonetheless this is how it works, and we’ve got to go forward.”
With no traditional presidential handoff, TV offered a fitting one before the ceremony, as NBC’s Savannah Guthrie commented on the contrasting images of dignitaries gathering at the Capitol and Trump’s children getting offAir Force One for the last time in Florida.
“This is the moment where the split screen goes away and all eyes go on the U.S. Capitol, because we are about to inaugurate a new president,” she said.
As TV chronicled for hundreds of millions, a new presidential era was beginning.
Contributing: Kelly Lawler, Gary Levin
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